George Anson’s capture of a Manila galleon by Samuel Scott.
PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Britain vs. Spain
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): West coast of Spanish America and Manila, Philippines
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Britain hoped to launch a preemptive strike against Spain in anticipation of the War of the Austrian Succession in Europe by cutting off Spain’s supply of wealth from the Americas.
OUTCOME: Britain failed to prevent Spain from entering the European war or to do much damage at all strategically, though Commodore George Anson’s diminished fleet did manage to harass Spain’s West Coast outposts in America, to capture one treasure-laden Spanish galleon, and to pave the way for British expansion in the Pacific.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Britain, slightly in excess of 1,000; Spain, unknown
CASUALTIES: Britain, around 1,000 dead, mostly from illness and shipwreck
When the tangled web of European alliances appeared to be leading Britain into what would become the War of the AUSTRIAN SUCCESSION in 1740, the English Crown dispatched Commodore George Anson (1697–1762) to raid Spain’s Pacific coast possessions—Chile, Peru, and Mexico— and to attack Spanish galleons on the high seas. Embroiled in the machinations of Prussia’s Frederick the Great (1712–86) against the presumptive heir to the Austrian throne, Maria Theresa (1717–80), Britain’s royal command hoped to avoid a head-to-head conflict with Spain on the Continent by cutting off its supply of income at the source, Spain’s American colonies.
Given the commission in 1739, Anson was unable actually to begin his mission until mid-September of 1740 because of compounded delays in provisioning and in finding enough men—the mission, after all, required by its very nature that he circumnavigate the world. The tardy departure, however, cost Anson the element of surprise on which he had counted. Though the Spanish had become aware of British intentions and Spain’s colonies had been warned to prepare for attack, Anson nevertheless set sail with a fleet of six warships—his flagship Centurion, plus Gloucester, Severn, Pearl, Wager, Tyral—and one supply vessel, Anna Pink. All were poorly manned, since the entire squadron boasted only 977 sailors, mostly untrained. There were some 200-plus marines among them, but they were fresh recruits with only minimal knowledge of the sea. Anson was lucky to have even them—an urgent request from Anson for more soldiers before shipping out had netted him a contingent of patients from a local hospital. Leading an ill-trained force in a late start against a ready enemy made many, including Anson himself, believe the mission was doomed from the start.
Once at sea, matters only grew worse. Another effect of starting in September was that Anson would have to approach Cape Horn in the autumn, when the westerlies were at their peak. By the time Anson’s fleet began to be battered by gale-force winds, the ships’ crews were all suffering from a severe outbreak of scurvy. Whipped about by storms and manned by sailors debilitated with scurvy, only three ships in Anson’s fleet—Centurion, Gloucester, and Tyral—survived the passage round the Horn. Anson’s fleet was cut in half, his fighting force, such as it was, reduced by some two-thirds, and his original mission effectively dead in the water. But Anson was a capable and imaginative commander, and he simply redefined his objectives. He set sail for Acapulco, fighting his way up the coast and hoping to ambush the famed “Manila Galleon,” a Spanish treasure ship—the Nuestra Señora de Cavadonga—before it left the Mexican port homeward bound to Manila. Anson missed the Spanish ship by two weeks, arriving at Acapulco in September 1741.
For two years after rounding the Horn, Anson ravaged the western shores of the Americas, working his way up the coast first to Mexico and then beyond. After he had lost two more ships, Anson, determined to continue around the globe, decided to make a north Pacific crossing to China. When he reached the Portuguese settlement of Macao (near modern-day Hong Kong) on November 13, 1742, he arrived only with his flagship and some 210 men. Nevertheless, the Centurion was the first British warship to sail into Chinese waters, and its arrival created an uproar. The Portuguese, worried about the precarious trade agreements and protocol arrangements they had made with Chinese leaders in Canton, initially refused Anson’s request for provisions and repairs despite pressure from Britain’s East India Company. After careful negotiations with the Chinese, Anson secured his provisions and— recruiting more men—set sail in the spring of 1743, once again hoping to intercept and capture the Nuestra Señora de Cavadonga.
Sailing with a reinforced crew fueled by dreams of immense wealth, Anson departed Macao heading south toward the Philippines. In the South China Sea Anson lay in wait for the Manila-bound treasure ship. Greatly outnumbered but with superior weaponry and a greedy crew hungry for loot, the Centurion captured the Cavadonga after a fierce battle on June 20, 1743. Victory was sweet for the beleaguered Englishman. The booty came to somewhat more than 1.3 million pieces of eight and some 35,000 ounces of silver, worth a total of about £400,000. Thus fortified, Anson and his crew continued on their voyage around the world, arriving in London in June 1744 to a conqueror’s welcome as the treasure they had captured was paraded through the streets in 32 wagons.
Anson may have failed at his mission, meeting none of the objectives set for him by the Royal Navy command, but his world cruise, highlighted by the sailing of the first British warship into Chinese waters and by the capture of the Manila galleon, became one of the more famous voyages in naval history. Despite the loss of all but one ship and more than 1,000 men, Anson returned a national hero, and his cruise sparked a wave of British expansion into the Pacific. Anson, a man of some imagination and initiative at a time when the Royal Navy was known for anything but the vision and pluck of its officers, not only became George, Lord Anson, the leading admiral of his day, but also went down in history as the “Father of the Modern British Navy.”
Further reading: W. V. Anson, Life of Admiral Lord Anson, the Father of the British Navy, 1697–1762 (London: J. Murray, 1912); S. W. C. Pack, Admiral Lord Anson: The Story of Anson’s Voyage and Naval Events of His Day (London: Cassell, 1960); L. A. Wilcox, Anson’s Voyage (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1970).